Thursday, March 24, 2005

Getting it right with China

As we go into press, the visit of the Chinese Prime Minister Wen is still on. Makes a change from SAARC! He is on a wide-ranging tour, including India.
Let us close that irresponsible chapter of opening a Taiwanese consulate in 2004 – what else would you call an outlet handing out visas? The Chinese consider Taiwan as part of their territory and liken the new invasion facility to the US President Lincoln’s actions over a secessionist South. That is their internal matter and we would be foolish to stick our noses in there. The Chinese like funding infrastructure projects. Long may we see more “Friendship Bridges” in the future! They are also mentioning the two stalled power projects, because we think they were too expensive.
Beyond that, we need to understand our position vis a vis the blossoming Sino-Indian relationship. Trade is up to Euro 10 billion (1 Euro is worth 1.3 dollars). It is growing fast and has major implications as it binds the two nations together. We are now going to be able to fly direct to Kunming (south West China).
How do we grow that into the famed Eastern Quadrangle of Eastern India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and SW China? Just as we look back 34 years to March 1971, our children will look forward 34 years to 2039. That world could be unrecognisable. Visionary leadership could see a booming region or the New World Frontier. On present trends, however, they will have said that this generation failed to see the possibilities and the region sank further into violence, flood and chaos.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Kolkata 4 Dhaka 2

In this high scoring football match, we are deep into the second half. Dacca had taken the lead early on in 1971, becoming a capital city of an independent nation. 0-1.
Calcutta didn’t show much creativity in the seventies and made no attempts on our goal. They however came back into the match when Dhaka (as it changed its name) scored an own goal in the eighties, discarding English, failing to make Dhaka an attractive place for investment and becoming a foreign aid junkie. 1-1.
Kolkata also liked to ‘partake’ but Dhaka didn’t know when to say NO.
Early in the second half (otherwise known as the nineties), Kolkata went ahead as it solved its electricity problem. 2-1.
No longer would it be infamous for hours of load shedding. Dhaka took to blackouts with relish.
Kolkata then went further ahead as it invested in its transport infrastructure. An Underground metro. Flyovers. 3-1.
Dhaka’s manager delighted in the increasing traffic jams and told his players the tailbacks signified progress, like in Bangkok!
Without any help from the manager, Dhaka got a goal back, with the rise of the ready-made-garments industry, making it 3-2.
Here was something new and different. More than a million women were beavering away in Dhaka’s factories. Dhaka was earning dollars, not just getting them from the donor ‘fix’.
Kolkata however spoilt the mood with their late surge in the IT sector and the re-establishment of a wide range of heavyweight industries in and around Kolkata. 4-2.
With the score now at 4-2, the Dhaka crowd is getting anxious. Can they get two goals back to level the match? Victory seems a long way away as our defence could quite easily score some more own goals. One wonders if they have been bribed.
Nothing is impossible and there have been some great comebacks. After the war, South Korea was in tatters. All the industry was in North Korea. However, within a generation, South Korea won the match by a mile. Ireland also came from nowhere and now has a greater GDP per person than its rival, UKay. Germany did the same to the UKay too in the seventies.

Is Kolkata really ahead of Dhaka?
In many ways, yes. They have an underground metro. We don’t. They have over a more than 15 flyovers. We have one, soon to be only two. They have a vast industrial sector that dwarfs ours. They have a Special Economic Zone. We are at the stage of learning what that is. They are better educated. Kolkata has a vibrant IT sector. IBM and other multinationals have set up shop in Kolkata. English is widely spoken. There, not here. Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) or the transfer of white-collar jobs from the West to lower cost India is happening in Kolkata, not just Bangalore. IT design, call centres and the rest. We are merely talking about it in seminars. They are doing it. They hardly ever suffer power-cuts and export electricity to other states. We have load shedding all through the year. Our cost of living is soaring across the board.
We are decimating our jute and sugar industries. As we close down a factory, they open one in the same sector on their side of the border.
It looks like the old nightmare economic relationship of an Industrial West Bengal and a rural East Bengal is reappearing. After all that sacrifice and all those high hopes.
However, there are one or two bright spots. We have converted more vehicles to CNG, so reducing our pollution levels. We have a ready-made-garments industry, employing a million people in the Dhaka region. They will, however, convert to CNG very soon and we have now lost our garments quota advantage.

In the eighties, Calcutta was at its nadir. It was famous for Mother Teresa, the City of Joy and Geoffrey Moorhouse’s unflattering book on the city. Business houses left in droves, frustrated by the power cuts, unionism and strikes. The Left came into power in 1967 and went to work in the villages, neglecting ‘bourgeois’ Kolkata. India was still mired in the licence raj system. Calcutta and West Bengal had one time accounted for 25% of entire India’s industrial output. That steadily declined as industrialists closed and relocated to Mumbai.
Dhaka meanwhile was in its second decade as the capital of an independent state. Though regarded as a backwater and unstable after a series of political upheavals and military coups in the 70s, it at least had a chance. Pollution was unknown. Law and order was ‘normal’. One could move from one end of the city to another with relative ease. The ready-made-garments industry had just been established, ahead of many other later competitors. Vietnam and the rest hadn’t got off the blocks yet.
With Calcutta on the slide, and Rangoon, Thimpu, & Kathmandu still asleep, Dhaka looked the most attractive in this region. Or at least had the potential to do so. No one had heard of Kunming. China was only getting started. The eighties were our lost decade, where we could have stolen a march on the rest.

A hole-in-the-middle?
Given our dependence on donors, we cannot forget to mention them. By chance, I happened to be speaking to a senior aid official recently. He described donor policies towards Dhaka as ‘the-hole-in-the-middle’ approach. I.e. donors were so geared to poverty reduction in the villages, they forgot that Dhaka was on the way to becoming the fourth largest city in the world. They are all neglecting the capital city, which is thus growing like a hydra in all directions, without any planning. The industrial, financial, property and service sector machine operates, or rather sputters in the capital region. Focusing some attention on Dhaka may bring quick returns and save the city from a disaster in ten years’ time. Investing in Dhaka would bring national economic benefits.

Can we get back in the match?
We set ourselves very low targets, lacking ambition. Making such a fuss over one tiny flyover in Mohakhali says it all.

To score three goals, we must:
· Create an affordable mass public transport system, for people and not just the private car. That allows poor people to commute from distance and not have to live in slums
· Set up local gas-based power generation plants to solve the load-shedding problem, thus boost our industrial growth and attractiveness for investment.
· Reduce the cost of living, especially of essential items by bringing order to the out-of-control racket of a handful of big players, taking a cut on every turn.

To score the winner, we must persuade the aid agencies to actively support the re-invigoration of Dhaka. They will have to do a lot more on financing basic housing, improving slum conditions, water quality, flood control, health clinics, waste management, and energy efficiency. Beautifying the city by focusing on basic needs will bring much more dividends than chrome-coloured dividers.

Will we win the match? The heart says we just might. The brain says we haven’t a hope in hell.
Unless, that is, we find new managers. Unless, we replace the fading, older stars with the best from our youth team.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

freedom fighters start again

Last Friday, on the 11th of March, a section of freedom fighters had a convention to announce a new move. The highlight was the speech by Bhasha Matin, the famous language movement veteran.
Will this be one last hurrah? And what will they do in the volatile political environment of 2006?